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The Anatomy of a Hot Dog

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A favorite childhood pastime consisted of playing hooky from school and hitting the gas station with my late father, where we’d grab two messy hot dogs each and devour them in his red Ford pickup truck, on the way to Wal-Mart. A no-frills hot dog topped with chili, onions, mustard and slaw, wrapped in thin paper, tossed in a white paper bag—perfectly smashed and not-too-soggy by consumption time—is my ideal.

A little backstory on the hot dog.

Hot dogs were brought to the U.S. by way of a German butcher immigrant who opened a hot dog stand on Coney Island in New York in 1871. By the time 1893 rolled around, hot dogs became a mainstream culinary staple at baseball games, as they pair very well with cold beer. 

Sometimes referred to as a “frank” or a “wiener,” named after its German heritage, the hot dog has become a true American delicacy. While New York and Chicago remain top geographical areas for hot dog consumption, the Triangle has its own hot dog scene.

Here’s where (and how) to eat them all summer long:

The Roast Grill

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Around since the 1940s, The Roast Grill remains a Raleigh institution and is best-known for its “burnt” hot dogs and strict ketchup ban. If ketchup is part of your personal condiment ammo, mini glass bottles of Heinz are available for purchase for $17.95. “Only four people have ever stormed out of here because of no ketchup,” says owner Hot Dog George Poniros. In fact, Poniros’ late Grandmother was set on tasting the flavor of the hot dog, so ketchup aside, don’t expect to find relish, kraut, cheese, fries or chips in the vicinity.  

I proceeded to order three hot dogs, all the way, one at a time, and Hot Dog George will remember my face forever. The ambiance alone is enough to draw in customers.  

Char-Grill

Char-Grill strictly uses bright red hot dogs from Carolina Packers, which draw in specific hot clientele. “I back Carolina Packers Brightleaf Hot Dogs over traditional dogs because they’re a bit spicier than normal hot dogs,” says Andrew Baker, a Raleigh resident and hot dog connoisseur. 

Baker grew up serving Brightleaf hot dogs in his parent’s restaurant, where his father often told customers that with enough mustard and chili on top, one won’t be able to tell the difference anyway. “Carolina Packers also make Red Hots, which are a stubbier, spicier version of regular Brightleafs—and I am not ashamed to admit I have eaten cold out of my refrigerator for a midnight snack.” Don’t skimp on the Cheerwine at Char-Grill, however, as it makes the experience that much more enjoyable. 

Cardinal Bar

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A newer staple to my personal hot dog trail is Cardinal Bar. When I learned Jason Howard was boiling hot dogs in beer and slathering Duke’s mayo in lieu of butter on buns for grilling purposes, I hightailed it to the spot, posted up at the bar and inhaled four hot dogs in one sitting. 

“Butter doesn’t caramelize on the bun, he notes. “A bun can make or break a hot dog,” he adds. “There is nothing worse than a soggy or over-steamed bun in my opinion.” As for the plausible bun, it’s a New England frankfurter bun (also referred to as a Lobster roll bun).  “How this bun hasn’t made it below the Mason Dixon line is beyond me—and up in New England they don’t toast it, which is equally beyond me.”

If you’re looking for a veggie dog, which is hard to come by (because what’s the point?), the Cardinal Bar’s version does taste like a real hot dog and it’s also boiled in beer. “Loma Linda, out of Nashville, North Carolina, is local and tenured,” says Howard. “These cats have been making plant-based foods since the 1890s and they come in a can soaking in a brine. That could be scary to some but they are by far the tastiest, with the best texture.”

Snoopy’s Hot Dogs

Snoopy’s has remained loyal to its true Eastern North Carolina style hot dog, consisting of mustard, onions and chili atop a steamed bun, while Cloos’ Coney Island features a true Chicago-style hot dog and their famous Coney dog, which to be honest is basically Eastern style. 

Sup Dogs

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If trying to please a group of different palates, Sup Dogs in Chapel Hill is the place to be. From classic chili and slaw dogs to more inventive versions ala Hawaii dog, with pineapple. Honey mustard and special Sup Dog sauce, there are no rules here. And ketchup is allowed at no extra charge. 

Back to the hot dog drawing board.

What constitutes a good hot dog? I suppose that depends on who you’re asking. Perhaps it’s the dive dog at Accordion Club after a few shots of whiskey. Or a basic, no frills ballpark dog at a Durham Bulls game. Or a late-night Cook Out drive-thru run for a tray with two hot dogs and slaw and a corn dog as sides—a bold move if you ask me. Many also tout Shorty’s, in Wake Forest, as “the best hot dog” in Wake County.

Often, it’s the little things that make a hot dog taste better. “That greasy and slightly damp wax paper that has further steamed the bun deep down inside the white paper bag with your order written on the side,” notes Casey Atwater, a banker and chef on the side. “A nondescript brand of bun. A pink hot dog—steamed, not burnt. Sweet slaw, runny chili, yellow mustard.” This is his perfect scenario and he’s not wrong. 

If we’re talking gourmet dogs, Jake Wood’s neighborhood dog at Plates, $5 after 8:30pm on the bar snacks menu, is a real treat, topped with pimento goat cheese, jalapeño and pickled onion. Across the way at Morgan Street Food Hall, a kimchi hot dog at Cow Bar exists. And if we get into brat territory, which I suppose is a version of a hot dog, chef Kevin Smith at 41Hundred crafts a delectable veal and lamb bratwurst.

But for Howard, a hot dog purist, it’s an all-beef hot dog with beef chili and cheddar cheese. For me, it’s a gas station hot dog with chili, mustard, slaw and onions—nothing less, nothing more.

You can find all of my Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill hot dog recommendations on my “Hot Dog Trail in the Triangle” CurEat list.

Newsflash: The Aperol Spritz Will Never Be Dead.

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Last summer, the New York Times  wrote an article stating that the Aperol Spritz was “officially the drink of the summer.” The article goes on to say that the neon orange-hued cocktail is so popular at Caffe Dante in New York City, it’s now on tap and poured from a 10-gallon keg—noting the bar going through six to nine cases of Aperol per week.

It’s bitter. It’s bubbly. It’s low ABV. It’s refreshing. And yes, it’s photogenic thanks to Aperol’s neon orange hue. Though, what’s not to like? Few and far in between) don’t love its bitterness, but all that aside, it’s hard to deny its summer appeal.

Back to the NYT. Jenna Kaplan, a spirit’s publicist and cocktail enthusiast, was the first to bring the newspaper’s latest headline to my attention: “The Aperol Spritz Is Not a Good Drink,” followed by, “The popular, Instagram-friendly aperitif drinks like a Capri Sun after soccer practice on a hot day. Not in a good way.” While it might not be the best cocktail you’ve ever had in your entire life, it serves a purpose, and that purpose is to remain as summer’s easiest drinking cocktail.

According to Grub Street’s rebuttal, the entire internet is upset about this news, myself included, and it’s time to take a stance for the beloved, bright orange summertime libation. “My guess is if you don’t like an Aperol Spritz, it’s because you’re drinking it wrong—and cutting corners with sub-par bubbles is usually the reason your spritz is tasting too sweet or unbalanced,” notes Kaplan. It’s legit my priority in Italy, accompanied with a sunset or salty, cured meat. Kaplan prefers her backdrop to be a breezy cafe in Rome paired with a buttery bowl of Cacio e Pepe, but when stateside, frequents Nitecap in New York City.

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Image courtesy of Jenn Rice

Natasha David, who runs the bar program [at Nitecap], has a rotating menu of always delicious and inventive spritzes, in addition to serving a killer Aperol Spritz,” Kaplan says. We’re not trying to call it the best drink you’ll ever have, but let’s be real here, it is summer in a glass and there’s no other way to describe it.

Aperol has been a staple in Italian culture since the early 1900s, and the Aperol Spritz itself, consisting of Prosecco, Aperol and soda water, has been a mainstay since the ‘50s, gaining popularity in the U.S. by way of social media and clever marketing campaigns. Whether you’d like to admit it or not, the drink is very photogenic.

Saying the Italian aperitif is not good is like saying rosé or a gin and tonic is not good, and we know the latter two are here to stay. At Mulino Italian Kitchen & Bar, the Aperol Spritz is a popular cocktail. Owner Samad Hachby, just back from Italy, notes that everywhere he looked, people were drinking the orange-colored drink.  “It’s a great, refreshing drink—it pairs well with any food selection and is a great palate cleanser.”

Jim McCourt, bar manager at Prohibition in Charleston, simply states they’re not going anywhere anytime soon “because they’re f*cking awesome.” The classic drink is “light, refreshing and can be consumed at breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner, and just before bed,” he adds. Charlotte’s cocktail extraordinaire, Bob Peters, notes it’s one of his favorite spring/summertime cocktails. “I love starting my evening with an Aperol Spritz because they are not super high in alcohol content,” he says, noting that it’s a mellow way to start the night.

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Truth be told, there are no rules for the Aperol Spritz. Drink it anytime of year, anytime of day, and even during a meal, it’s all good to me. Just like a proper gin and tonic in the height of winter. Or a glass of Spanish Rosado in the fall.

“The Aperol Spritz is far from dead, and if anything, its growth in popularity as the unofficial drink of summer has only led to legions of bars and bartenders creating their own unique variations of it,” says Kaplan, who’s all about the Cosmic Club at Nitecap right now. At Northern Spy, Durham’s latest bar, eatery and bottle shop, prosecco is replaced with Stem Ciders L’Acier for a subtle tweak.

In an effort to show just how popular the Aperol Spritz is, CurEat is building the largest list of bars and restaurants serving the drink. So please tell us where you spritz by adding in your favorite bar, restaurant, hotel or lounge serving the vibrant drink HERE.

And if you’re not using CurEat yet, we urge you to download the app to start documenting your favorite spots for specific cocktails or dishes, favorite places with hip music, best pimento cheese, unique bites, and then some.